The Turnbull government have been out and about doing education policy this week. Two things – they will be throwing more money at primary and secondary education and throwing less money at universities. In general that’s probably not a bad place to start – but the devil is always in the detail.
Simply throwing money at a problem is seldom a good policy. That normally involves throwing good money after bad. The problems with the schooling system is not due to a lack of money but rather poor quality pedagogic strategies. It isn’t clear to me why the government wants to fund schools when they should be funding children via their parents. Rather than funding school on the basis of the SES status of their post code why not means test the income of parents and funds kids irrespective of the school they attend?
Then the government intends to make university students pay more and at lower levels of income for their education. In general this is a good thing. At the same time, however, the government will be paying less to the universities to provide that teaching. So what do I predict is going to happen:
- Universities will substitute away from expensive teaching activities and towards inexpensive teaching activities. So expect to see more business and law students and fewer engineering students.
- Universities will substitute away from now slightly lower profit margin students to relatively higher profit margin students, so expect to see more international students and/or fee paying students.
I find it strange that the government is cutting the more value adding activity of universities (i.e. teaching) and still throwing money at the lower value-add activity that is research. This is consistent with the notion that university research is a primary driver of innovation and growth (it’s is a nice story, but probably not true).
Then we have seen some talk of the government introducing a loan establishment fee for so-called HELP loans. Not a bad idea if the government were to actually establish a loan.
Attempting to starve universities of money in the hope of driving change is a waste of time. It will have the effect of making life difficult for many sessional staff but not much beyond that. If the government were keen to implement change in the university system they would look to modify the governance of universities. I would look to making, at least, two changes:
- University councils must be made up of alumni and donors.
- University councils must have, at least, half (if not more) of its members elected by the alumni.
Those would be serious reforms beyond just playing money games.